El Paso by Marty Robbins
|Single by Marty Robbins|
|from the album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs|
|Released||October 26, 1959|
|Marty Robbins singles chronology|
"El Paso" is a country and western ballad written and originally recorded by Marty Robbins, and first released on Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs in September 1959. It was released as a single the following month, and became a major hit on both the country and pop music charts, reaching number one in both at the start of 1960. It won the Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Recording in 1961, and remains Robbins' best-known song. It is widely considered a genre classic for its gripping narrative which ends in the death of its protagonist, its shift from past to present tense, haunting harmonies by vocalists Bobby Sykes and Jim Glaser (of the Glaser Brothers) and the eloquent and varied Spanish guitar accompaniment by Grady Martin that lends the recording a distinctive Tex-Mex feel. The name of the character Feleena was based upon a schoolmate of Robbins in the fifth grade; Fidelina Martinez.
There have been three versions of Robbins' original recording of "El Paso": the original full-length version, the edited version, and the abbreviated version (briefly described below), which is an alternate take in stereo. The original version is in mono and is around 4 minutes and 38 seconds in duration, far longer than most contemporary singles at the time, especially in the country genre. Robbins' longtime record company, Columbia Records, was unsure whether radio stations would play such a long song, so it released two versions of the song on a promo 45: the full-length version on one side, and an edited version on the other which was nearer to the three-minute mark. This version omitted some excerpts of lyrics of the original. Most of the record-buying public, as well as most disk jockeys, overwhelmingly preferred the full-length version.
The song is a first-person narrative about an ill-fated love triangle, as sung by a cowboy in El Paso, Texas, in the days of the Wild West. The singer recalls how he frequented a nightclub called "Rosa's Cantina," (A similiarly named establishment operates in El Paso claiming to be the namesake of the fictional saloon, but according to a 2017 article, "historians of the area are skeptical") where he became smitten with a young Mexican dancer named Feleena. When the singer notices another cowboy sharing a drink with "wicked Feleena," he challenges the newcomer to a gunfight out of jealousy over the young woman. The singer kills the newcomer, then flees El Paso for fear of being hanged for murder or killed in revenge by his victim's entourage. (The abbreviated version of the song, often found on compilations, omits a verse in which the singer expresses shock and remorse over the "foul evil deed I had done" before realizing he has to flee.) In the act of fleeing, the singer commits the additional and potentially hanging offense of horse theft ("I caught a good one, it looked like it could run"), further sealing his fate in El Paso. Departing El Paso, the singer hides out in the "badlands of New Mexico."
The song then fast-forwards to an undisclosed time later (though in the sequel, "Feleena", it is stated that only a day has passed), when the singer describes his yearning for Feleena that drives him to return to El Paso, without regard for his own life: "It's been so long since I've seen the young maiden / My love is stronger than my fear of death." Upon arriving, the singer is chased and fatally wounded by a posse. At the end of the song, the singer recounts how Feleena has "found me," and he dies in her arms after "one little kiss."
Coincidentally, "El Paso" was followed in the Hot 100 No. 1 position by Johnny Preston's "Running Bear", another song in which the protagonist of the song dies although the story of Running Bear is not told in the first person.
"El Paso" was frequently performed by the Grateful Dead in concert. The song entered the band's repertoire in 1969, and remained there until the band's demise in 1995; in total, it was performed 389 times. It was sung by rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, with Jerry Garcia contributing harmony vocals. On the album Ladies and Gentlemen... The Grateful Dead, Bob Weir introduces the song as the Dead's "most requested number".
The alternative country band Old 97's have also covered this song but instead of in the traditional 3/4 time, they hammered it out in 4/4. Their cover appears on Hit by a Train: The Best of Old 97's as well as the King of the Hill original TV soundtrack.
After Lolita along with her Western Trio had a hit in the US with Seemann (Deine Heimat ist das Meer) she reciprocated by recording a German version of the song which became a hit in the German world and contributed to a long series of bi-national songs such as Wenn der Sommer Kommt and two songs which would top the U.S. country charts thirteen years later as performed by Marie Osmond Lieber Jonny, Komm doch Wieder and Das einsame Haus in Waikiki.
Homer and Jethro also parodied the song ("Velvita's Cafe had standing room only; wall-to-wall drunks all the way to the door. I looked around for a place I could sit down; a lady got up, and I grabbed her char . . . ."[not "chair"). "I asked her where have you been all my life; she answered, 'Most of it I wasn't born'."
Blaine L. Reininger, a founding musician of San Francisco band Tuxedomoon, included this song on his 1989 solo album Book of Hours.
Robbins wrote two songs that are explicit sequels to "El Paso", one in 1966, one in 1976. (He also wrote other songs that told Western stories in a similar vein, but they are not sequels to "El Paso", as they involve none of the same characters.)
In 1966, Robbins recorded "Feleena (From El Paso)", telling the life story of Feleena, the "Mexican girl" from "El Paso", in a third-person narrative. This track was over eight minutes long. Robbins wrote most of it in Phoenix, Arizona, but went to El Paso seeking inspiration for the conclusion.
Born in a desert shack in New Mexico during a thunderstorm, Feleena runs away from home at 17, living off her charms for a year in Santa Fe, before moving to the brighter lights of El Paso to become a paid dancer. After another year, the narrator of "El Paso" arrives, the first man she did not have contempt for. He spends six weeks romancing her, before shooting another man with whom she was flirting through "insane jealousy" in a retelling of the key moment in the original song. Her lover's return to El Paso comes only a day after his flight (the original song suggests a longer timeframe before his return) and as she goes to run to him, the cowboy motions to her to stay out of the line of fire and is shot; immediately after his dying kiss, Feleena shoots herself with his gun. Their ghosts are heard to this day in the wind blowing around El Paso: "It's only the young cowboy showing Feleena the town".
In 1976 Robbins released another reworking, "El Paso City", in which the present-day singer is a passenger on a flight over El Paso, which reminds him of a song he had heard "long ago," proceeding to summarize the original "El Paso" story. "I don't recall who sang the song," he sings, but he feels a supernatural connection to the story: "Could it be that I could be the cowboy in this mystery...," he asks, suggesting a past life. This song was a country number one. The arrangement includes riffs and themes from the previous two El Paso songs. Robbins wrote it while flying over El Paso in, he reported, the same amount of time it takes to sing--four minutes and fourteen seconds. It was only the second time that ever happened to him; the first time was when he composed the original "El Paso" as fast as he could write it down. Robbins intended to do one more sequel, "The Mystery of Old El Paso," but he died in late 1982 before he could finish the final song.